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DIE IN PARIS The true story of France’s most notorious serial killer   By Marilyn Z. Tomlins Prologue   Saturday, May 25, 1946   In the predawn hours of Saturday, May 25, 1946, the residents of Rue de la Santé in Paris’s fourteenth arrondissement— district— were awakened by car doors slamming and men’s voices. Accustomed […]

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DIE IN PARIS

The true story of France’s most notorious serial killer

 

By

Marilyn Z. Tomlins

Prologue

 

Saturday, May 25, 1946

 

In the predawn hours of Saturday, May 25, 1946, the residents of Rue de la Santé in Paris’s fourteenth arrondissement— district— were awakened by car doors slamming and men’s voices. Accustomed as they were to early morning noise coming from the large triangular building that dominated the street— La Santé Prison— they still jumped from their beds and rushed to their windows. Something was wrong.

They could see dozens of ‘swallows’— policemen in black uniforms, capes and képis— brandishing batons to stop an excited crowd of journalists, photographers and Parisians from reaching the prison gate.

At 6 A.M. the first rays of a late spring sun reflecting off the broken glass on top of the wall enclosing the building, the prison gate swung open, and a black Citroën box-shaped police patrol van drove out. Cameras started to flash, and cries of ‘death to him’ rang out.

The vehicle was taking a beheaded man to his final resting place in an unmarked grave south of the capital.

‘Louisette’ had had her revenge.

Part One

Horror

Chapter One

Saturday, March 11, 1944

In the early evening of Saturday, March 11, 1944, the telephone rang on the desk of the duty officer at the Porte Maillot police station. Until that moment, Rue le Sueur in Paris’s elegant sixteenth arrondissement had made it into the news just once. That was in April 1912. That month, the French singer and actress, Léontine Pauline Aubart, from Number 17, had set sail from Southampton for New York with her lover, Benjamin Guggenheim, but she had returned to Rue le Sueur, alone and grieving. The ship she and her Ben had boarded in Southampton for the Atlantic crossing was the Titanic. Guggenheim had gone down with the ship.

Rue le Sueur would yet again be in the news.

On the phone was Jacques Marçais, a retired clerk.

Jacques and Andrée, his wife, lived in an apartment at Number 22 Rue le Sueur. He was calling to report that for the past six days pestilential smoke has been pouring from the chimney of a townhouse across the street.

The duty officer did not understand why someone would think that a smoking chimney needed investigating. In 1938, world war had broken out and France had capitulated to the enemy— Nazi Germany— and, since June 1940, when the Germans had occupied northern France, which included Paris, they had been imposing frequent power cuts on the Parisians. This night, it might have been spring, but it was still cold in Paris, and the Parisians had to light fires for heat. Consequently, in just about every Paris living room, a fire was roaring, and, from every Paris chimney, poured smoke.

Jacques explained.

It was the chimney of an uninhabited house, and that was certainly not normal.

The duty officer promised to send a patrolman over as soon as possible.

 

* * *

 

In pre-war days, on a Saturday evening at six — it was six sharp when Jacques stepped outside to wait for the patrolman— the narrow, one-way, Rue le Sueur would have been buzzing. Some of its residents would have been coming home with last-minute purchases from the family-owned shops on neighbouring Rue Pergolèse. Others would have been setting off for a night of fun in Paris’s multitude of cabarets and music halls.

On that night, almost four years into the German Occupation, Rue le Sueur was dark, deserted and silent. Not only had wartime food rationing and shortages emptied the shelves of Rue Pergolèse’s shops, but a blackout and curfew were in force. The blackout siren had sounded at six, but though the curfew would not commence until ten, all the street’s residents were already indoors.

Jacques would also have been indoors.

Approaching the townhouse with the smoking chimney, he very much wished he were.

 

* * *

Today, Rue le Sueur is what real estate agents describe as prime location.

A street of handsome six or seven storey buildings with boutiques or offices on the ground and lower floors and apartments on the upper floors, it runs between Avenue Foch and Avenue de la Grande-Armée. Avenue Foch enjoys the reputation of being the Paris street with the most expensive properties, and Avenue de la Grande-Armée is one of the twelve avenues opening onto Place de l’Étoile at the upper end of Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Therefore, ‘Étoile’, with its Arc de Triomphe monument, is but a stone’s throw from Rue le Sueur. The Eiffel Tower standing in the public garden of Champs-de-Mars is also close by; at night the tower glitters beyond the Avenue Foch end of the street.

In 1944, four or five storey turn of the century residential buildings lined the street, the traffic moving from Avenue de la Grande-Armée towards Avenue Foch. There were, in fact, only two businesses on the street. One was a tiny bougnat-bistro. The other was a garage. The bougnat-bistro— a coal merchant, who also sold wine, something one no longer comes across in Paris— was at Number 19. The garage took up all of the ground floor at Number 22 where Jacques and Andrée lived. From the top of the building fluttered the Nazis’ red, white and black Swastika; in June 1940, at the fall of France and the commencement of the wartime Occupation, the Germans had requisitioned the garage for TODT, the Wehrmacht’s Supply Service.

The townhouse with the smoking chimney, built in 1834 on 323 square metres of land, the only hôtel particulier— individual house— was at Number 21. It was four storeys high, which, in present day French architectural terms, means that it had a rez-de-chaussée (ground), premier (first), deuzième (second), and troisième (third) floor.

Once the home of a prince and princess, the Prince and Princess Colloredo de Mansfeld— he was Czech and she French— and the most elegant property on the street, the townhouse was in a state of utter dilapidation. Its façade was black with grime and dust, pigeon droppings covered the metal window shutters— there were four windows to a storey— and paint peeled from its large double front door, a porte cochère— a gateway— through which horse-drawn carriages had once passed.

The townhouse’s decline had begun on the death of the prince in the 1930s when the

princess had moved out, leaving the upkeep of the magnificent house to tenants. One tenant had been the French actress Cécile Sorel who had used the townhouse as a warehouse for stage props. What had further contributed to the state of the property’s dilapidation was that the princess had sold it at just about the same time TODT had requisitioned the garage across the street, and that the property’s new proprietor had not moved in. He had, instead, also used the townhouse as a place of storage. Or so Jacques and Andrée had thought.

 

* * *

 

The story that the couple would tell about the townhouse after that March night, was that the goings on at the property after the princess had sold it, had intrigued them.

They said that the new owner, a youngish man— they thought that he was in his thirties— used to come to the townhouse quite often, but that he had never remained for long, just for a few hours, and such visits were either at a very early hour of the morning or at nightfall.

They said that he had arrived either on foot or on a bicycle, always approaching the townhouse from Avenue de la Grande-Armée. When he was on his bike— it was painted green— he was dressed in bleu de travail, the blue overalls and cloth cap of a French worker, but when on foot, he looked the Paris gentilhomme; he wore a suit, shirt with starched cuffs and collar, a fedora and a brightly-coloured bow tie. Often, when on his bike and dressed like a French worker, he pulled a small cart behind him; bikes and vélo-rickshaws had become the primary modes of transport in Paris, because, along with rationing food, the Germans were also rationing petrol. His cart was always packed high. They had wondered what he was carting to the house. Whatever it was, it was hidden under a stained sheet of canvas.

When on foot and looking the Paris gentilhomme, he frequently had another person, male or female, with him. They always carried suitcases— always two suitcases— and should the person with him be a woman, he carried one of her suitcases for her. Those visitors had puzzled the couple as much as the man; whereas he had set off again after a while, they had remained at the house, and no sooner had he disappeared around the Avenue de la Grande Armée corner than sounds of banging drifted from the townhouse. The banging had often continued deep into the night. There had once even been banging on a Christmas Eve; it had been interminable.

On other nights, other noises, too, had drifted from the house: a child’s crying, a woman groaning as if in pain, a man shouting angrily.

One night, one of the street’s residents walking by long after the curfew had sounded, had even heard a man’s voice calling out for help from somewhere deep inside the house.

Au secours! Au secours! S’il vous plait, au secours!”

Help! Help! Please help!

The couple would say that around May or June of the previous year they had noticed that the man had stopped coming to the townhouse.

The townhouse had obviously been abandoned.

The months had passed and 1943 had ended, and there still had been no evidence of activity at the property.

Then, on Monday, March 6, the townhouse’s chimney had started to spew smoke.

The couple would say that, at first, the smoke had risen in thin, white coils, which the early spring wind had swept into their kitchen; they lived on the top floor. Around midnight, that night, the smoking had stopped, but only to recommence the following morning.

All of the Tuesday, the smoke had risen into the sky, and, again, at around midnight, it had stopped, only to begin again in the morning.

The smoke had by then turned black and a pestilential stench clung to it, as well as to everything else; their furniture, their clothes, their hair. Even the food they ate.

As Andrée would continue with the story, on that third day, she had started to feel queasy and soon she was vomiting. She wanted Jacques to summon the police or the fire service, whichever would get to the townhouse quicker, but he had refused. He wanted to know from her whether she had forgotten that France had lost the war and that the victorious Boches— the Germans— had become their new masters. Having ‘swallows’ swarming all over the street was bound to draw the Boches’ attention and that would have been most undesirable, he had told her. He knew that contact with the police was contact with the Germans. At the start of the Occupation the police force had been given the choice of resigning or working under German orders. It had chosen the latter. The Germans, therefore, knew whatever the police were doing.

“But I insisted and he had no choice but to summon the police,” Andrée would end her story.

“And just as well I did,” Jacques would say, nodding.

On reaching the townhouse, he had seen that someone had left a note pinned to the gateway. The note had obviously been there for some time because rain had smudged the message:  ‘Absent for a month. Forward mail to 18 Rue des Lombards, Auxerre.’

The townhouse had indeed been abandoned.

Its chimney should not have been spewing smoke.

 

* * *

 

About fifteen minutes after Jacques reached the townhouse, two faint strips of bicycle headlights came around the corner of Avenue de la Grande–Armée. ‘Swallows’ patrolled by bike and Porte Maillot had sent over not one, but two. Because of the blackout, the bike’s headlights were painted blue as those of all vehicles had to be.

Patrolmen Joseph Teyssier and Emile Fillion’s shift was about to end. The call to Rue le Sueur would be the last of the day. They wanted to get it over with so that they could go home.

Wasting no time, they wanted to know from Jacques what was going on.

He showed them the note.

Several of the street’s residents, including Andrée, had stepped out on to the street and the concierge – supervisor — from the apartment building at Number 23, the building next door to the townhouse, walked up.

“The proprietor’s name is Petiot,” she said.

He was a family doctor.

“He lives at Number 66 Rue de Caumartin in the ninth arrondissement.”

The patrolman knew that Rue de Caumartin was close to ‘Printemps’ department store and Saint Lazare railway station.

The concierge had more information she wanted to pass on.

The doctor had bought the townhouse two years previously, at which time he had building work done. He left a set of keys with her to let the workmen into the house in the mornings and to lock up after them at night.

“He is an attractive man. Charming, too. Real gentleman, if you ask me,” she said.

He never talked down to her because he was a doctor, and she, the supervisor of a building.

“But the house does not look all that great inside, if you ask me,” she added. Not for a doctor’s place, alors.

She had the doctor’s telephone number.

“PIGalle 77-11.”

She suggested that the patrolmen telephone him and summon him to his townhouse.

The two patrolmen decided that they would.

 

***

On the corner of Avenue de la Grande-Armée was a bistro, Le Crocodile.

Patrolman Teyssier, more extrovert than his colleague, decided to walk there to make the call.

The bistro was already shuttered for the night. The Germans were also imposing three ‘dry’ days on the Parisians and that Saturday was such a day. There had been no reason to keep the bistro open.

At Teyssier’s first knock, the owner hastily rolled up the metal shutter. Having heard noise on the street, and having been concerned like all his neighbours about the smoke and the stench, he had been watching from an upstairs window, pleased that the police have been summoned. He had wanted to do so himself, but like Jacques, he, too, had not wanted to draw the attention of the Germans.

A couple of minutes later a telephone exchange operator put Patrolman Teyssier through to PIGalle 77-11.

A woman’s voice was heard on the line.

“Bonsoir. Qui est à l’appareil?”

Who is speaking?

Bonsoir Madame, it’s the police,” replied Patrolman Teyssier into the mouthpiece.

He asked to speak to Dr Petiot.

“I will call him, Monsieur l’agent,” replied the woman.

A man’s voice came on the line.

Bonsoir, Monsieur, it’s the police,” repeated the patrolman.

He apologised for calling in the evening; it was dinner time and, despite the food rationing and shortages, it was still a sacred moment for a Frenchman.

“A fire has broken out at Number 21 Rue le Sueur, and I’ve been told the property belongs to you,” he explained.

There was a slight hesitation on the other end of the line.

“Have you gone in?”

Patrolman Teyssier said he had not.

“Don’t, and don’t touch anything,” cautioned the voice. “I’ll be right there. In fifteen minutes at the most; that’s how long it will take me to cycle over. I’ll be bringing the key. But

don’t go in! Wait for me.”

Before the patrolman hung up, he asked the doctor— he presumed he was speaking to the Dr Petiot, proprietor of the townhouse— to hurry.

“It’s urgent. The smoke stinks, and everyone feels sick!” he said.

For half an hour, the two patrolmen waited for the doctor to materialise, and, after having waited for another fifteen minutes with still no sign of him, Patrolman Teyssier returned to Le Crocodile to make another telephone call. The owner, having changed to his working clothes of black trousers, white short-sleeved shirt, black waistcoat and a white, ankle-length, cloth apron tied around his waist, was busy opening up. He sensed it was going to be a busy night on the street and he was willing to break the law; if anyone wanted something stronger than a cup of ersatz coffee, he was their man.

Patrolman Teyssier called Porte Maillot again. He asked for the fire service to be sent over. He wanted them to hurry because something awfully rotten was burning.

Ten minutes later, a fire engine, headlights also painted blue, raced around the Avenue de la Grande-Armée corner and up Rue le Sueur and came to a halt in front of Number 21, its tires screeching.

* * *

 

Like everything else in wartime Paris, locks were hard to replace.

For this reason, Caporal Avilla Boudringhim of Porte Maillot fire service, having been told by the two patrolmen that the townhouse’s owner was not just anyone, but a doctor, was reluctant to smash the one on the gateway. Therefore, he and his crew of three entered the property through one of the shuttered ground floor windows: neither the old shutter nor the cracked window pane behind it had offered their hammers much resistance.

Inside the house, they found themselves in a large salon.

They saw by flashlight— a switch in a wall had failed to produce light— that the room was in a state of great disarray. Several items of furniture, some broken, others covered in old blankets, were piled against the walls. Cardboard boxes, hat boxes and suitcases lay all over the floor. Some of the suitcases were open: an incredible array of goods spilt from them. There lay men’s jackets, ties, socks, a woman’s gold lamé dress, a large feathered hat, handbags, numerous pairs of shoes. Also, pots of face cream, boxes of pills, tubes of ointment, some razors, pairs of eyeglasses, some cutlery and crockery, several army-issue blankets and several sheets. Price tags were attached to several of the items and some suitcases bore labels of Orient Express trains, Cunard cruise liners, and luxury hotels in London, Nice, Venice, Istanbul and New York. It was as if someone had abandoned moving in or had been disturbed while moving out.

Boudringhim and his men made their way from the room to an oval-shaped hallway. It was in perfect order; it was even elegant. The walls were covered in tapestry fabric. On the floor lay a carpet, which looked expensive, and brocaded Louis Quinze chairs were arranged in a semicircle in front of a marble fireplace adorned with two harp-playing porcelain cherubim. A large still life hung on one of the walls.

A red-carpeted staircase led from the hallway to the upper floors, and the fire chief motioned to his men that they were going to see what was upstairs.

The stairs led to a corridor, doors on both sides. The men opened each and flashed their lights into the rooms in front of them. All, but one of the rooms, were in a similar state of disorder to the salon. The exception looked like it was being turned into a study, perhaps a library. Its walls were lined with glass-fronted cases, all filled with books. More books lay in piles on the floor.

The fire fighters went up another staircase, that one narrow and uncarpeted, their footsteps deafening in the darkness. Again, they pushed open doors and flashed their lights into rooms, all cluttered with boxes, suitcases and old dusty furniture.

Down the men went again.

Upstairs, they had counted the rooms; there were ten.

Nowhere up there had they found any signs of fire. The stench that was out on the street had been present, yes, and they had had to cover their noses with large woollen handkerchiefs they carried around especially for that purpose, but they had not even seen a match or a cigarette butt anywhere.

The house had a basement. A second staircase in the hallway led down to it. The fire fighters were going to go down to see what was there, but a glass door drew their attention.             The door was closed, but not locked.

It opened onto a small, dark, oblong courtyard. The locked gateway was at one end of the courtyard. At the other was an archway. A second larger courtyard could be seen beyond it. A narrow metal door also led off the courtyard. The door was ajar. Behind it was a set of narrow, cracked stone steps. The men knew that those would lead down to the townhouse’s basement. They started to descend, stepping carefully so as not to trip in the semi-darkness.

It had been chilly in the courtyard; going down the steps, the air turned hot and foul, fouler than what it had been in the house.

There was a door at the bottom of the steps. It, too, stood ajar. Judging by all the open doors, the house’s proprietor seemed to have left the townhouse in a great hurry.

In the excitement of that moment the fire fighters did not think of looking for the electrical mains to switch the electricity back on; in Paris townhouses, the mains were always in the basement.

By flashlight they saw that the basement consisted of a short, narrow, low-ceilinged corridor. Several doors led from it. Those were closed. The men opened one after the other; again not one was locked. Behind each was a tiny roughly-cemented room. The rooms were all empty. Flashing their lights into the last room on the corridor, they knew they had found the source of the stench.

The room in front of them was approximately four metres wide and three metres deep. Rusty water pipes and flyspecked electrical wires ran up its walls and into a ceiling blackened with soot and blistered with damp. Two old and dented coal and wood burners stood against one of the walls. One was much larger than the other. The smaller was rusted and it had neither door nor chimney; it was obvious it would never work again. Coal was smouldering in the furnace of the larger one. A burnt log, or what looked like one, protruded from the coal. The fire fighters covered their noses; the air was really foul. They stepped into the room,

Boudringhim leading. They had to have a closer look at the burner; they wanted to see if there might be something else in its furnace. Boudringhim poked at the log with his flashlight; he wanted to free it, but only ash scattered to the floor.

He groaned.

What was protruding from the coals was indeed not a log; it was an arm. The hand was still intact: the fingers, swollen and black, were clearly discernible. They were pointing at him. It was as if they were beckoning him to come closer; to come and see what was going on and to do something about it. To help.

He leant forward and another groan escaped him.

In the furnace, flames were devouring a human skull, its eye sockets empty and its mouth agape. It was as if the skull, too, was making a final effort to call for help, to yell for help.

There was more horror.

In a corner of the room lay a pile of human remains.

The fire fighters flashed their lights at it. They saw a foot, a rib cage, a jawbone, another arm, another skull; the complete torso of a woman.

“What could I have done in such a place?” Boudringhim would later ask.

He motioned his men to get the hell out.

Terror speeds the legs.

Within moments, the four put their hammers to the gateway’s precious lock.

The lock, smashed, they staggered on to the pavement.

The two patrolmen were waiting.

Messieurs… you have some work ahead of you!” stammered Boudringhim.

The fire chief wanted to say more, tell the two what he and his men had seen, but the words would not come. One of his men was vomiting against TODT’s garage. The other two had sunk to their knees in the gutter.

In the morning, in his statement to the police, Boudringhim would say: ‘After exploring the ground and upper floors of the house, we went down to the basement and, guided by the smell, we came to a room with the two burners. There we saw human flesh burning in one of them. We also saw some human remains lying on the floor. A

fleshless arm stuck from the lit furnace. I think it was the arm of a woman’.

* * *

The two patrolmen braced themselves for what was to come and disappeared into the house.

Their noses led them to the basement.

Having seen what no one should have to see, they too turned on their heels and fled.

Outside, Patrolman Fillion collapsed against the house. His colleague continued running. He ran to Le Crocodile to make his third telephone call of the night. He again called Porte Maillot.

“We need help over here!” he shouted into the mouthpiece. “We’ve found bodies burning… lots of them.”

The duty officer said that he would immediately send more men over.

* * *

Eager to read on?

‘Die in Paris’ is available on Amazon in both softback and electronic editions.

Dr Marcel Petiot as a young family doctor.

Dr Marcel Petiot as a young family doctor.

Marilyn Z. Tomlins

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DIE IN PARIS

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The horrific story of WW2 French serial killer Dr Marcel Petiot, France's most prolific killer.

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